Disclaimers: Not even remotely close to mine.
Summary: Shaking those dreams.
Ratings Note/Warnings: NC-17 for m/m interaction. One of those m's happens to be 15 years old. Consider yourself warned.
Author's Note: This is a possible (authorized, I swear) sequel to the lovely, brilliant Anna's "Swedish Bedtime Story." It may not make a great deal of sense without the original.
Acknowledgments: To the Blue one, for encouraging behavior like this, to Ladonna for fine, fine beta, to Alicia for the title, and to them and Spike, Dawn Sharon, Laura, and Rae for softing me when I whined. Last but by no means least, many thanks and abasements go to Anna, for thinking up the original in the first place, sharing it, and then *actually letting me play*. Some days I feel like a pretty lucky Te.
All remaining mistakes, squicks, and hopeless ambiguities are my own fault. Please feel free to call me on them here.
"Don't lick your lips, you'll smudge the paint."
And, like everything else, that was that. Not only did Alex slacken his lips to a casually restful state, he stilled his whole body.
Fox had often found himself wondering how any child who had grown up so obviously alone -- it was all in the things Alex didn't say -- could be so biddable....
Fox felt his cock twitch in his pants. Biddable, beautiful child. Smooth, lean, adoring child... His hand slipped a little as he was drawing the design on Alex's left cheek, and suddenly the motif was abstract, as opposed to plainly geometric.
It was, perhaps, better that way. Better to let the mindless shills in *this* particular audience be lost in the illusion of a performer. Better to make sure no one saw his Alex but him.
"Will I be doing any of the tumbling tonight?"
He'd known since he'd seen the boy that he'd be taking him away, had registered Alex's fear when he'd teased as little more than part of the game.
So young and *sweet*... nearly impossible to believe in. And the way he'd tried -- if amateurly -- to modify himself for Fox...
He'd known that the boy would do his best to make himself useful to *anyone* who got him out of that grim little town.
But he hadn't expected the boy to be so diligent about it.... A few months and he was already juggling, learning how to smile at the crowds, and had a great deal of the basic tumbling down. Better than any of the others he'd uprooted before leaving elsewhere....
It was almost enough to make Fox wonder how much Alex *really* mooned over him.
"We'll see, Alex."
Because every hint that he was doing well, every smile Fox casually tossed at him, every touch -- even if only to spread Alex's cheeks for his cock -- earned him the shyly beatific grin.
I knew you would be wonderful before I was born, and it makes me happy every time, it said. I am yours, it said, please keep me.
Fox had no power to resist the innocence, nor could he bring himself to ever fully corrupt it. Or even make it appear so.... he would not allow Alex to grow his hair, though the occasionally unruly spikes and waves of it could probably have used a little length.
He would not allow the taverners to pull him from Fox's side after a show, even if it did lose them coins.
He could not allow himself to hurt the boy without soothing it soon after.
And when he saw the thick, sable lashes dip with embarrassment, he knew he had been staring.
"Look at me."
Fox wasn't entirely sure if he'd meant it to come out as an order, but the thought was lost in the vision of his little clown, painted more wickedly than Fox believed the man beneath could ever be.
"Are you mine, Alex?"
"Always, please, always..."
And he could almost see Alex trying to find a way to go back in time and offer himself even younger for Fox's pleasure. Did Alex know how he twisted the meaning of beloved? Could Alex possibly understand?
Fox leaned in and pushed the boy's collar aside, planted a carefully harsh and possessive kiss just below where the greasepaint stopped on his throat. Felt the strong, eager hands grip his biceps and tremble on the edge of stroking him, or perhaps just of holding him close.
He bit down a little harder and suckled, knowing he was leaving a large bruise, knowing Alex's moans would eventually call attention to them, but unable to stop. Or to resist rubbing the thickening bulge beneath his palm.
Even if no one but Fox knew the boy was marked, flushed, and aching for him in the dim smoky light of the pub, Alex would still be more beautiful for it. He would be a better performer; the audience would sense his need and be drawn to it, helpless as Fox himself.
Fox pulled away and straightened Alex's clothes for him, trying not to pay attention to the way the boy's eyes followed his hips like a cobra's, black with need and *focused*. Fox tugged him to a stand, noting absently that he was getting taller. He tugged the tunic as low as he could over the boy's breeches, and said a silent thanks that he wasn't growing much in the torso.
He couldn't quite get his mind around the idea of Alex being of a height with him, wondered if it would feel the same when the glances were no longer sent up from the vicinity of his chest. Wondered if they'd be the same glances...
Probably better if Fox could never find out for sure.
"Come on, it's time."
The first night Fox had told him about crowds, Alex had listened intently, but a frown had marred the snubbed flesh of his nose after a time.
Ah, he thought, his first failing. He wants to resist the stage... "What is it, Alex?" And he hadn't bothered to keep much of the sharpness from his tone.
"I... I'm not to be in the plays yet."
"If the role is not specified, then who am I supposed to be?"
Fox had thought on that for a moment, turned it over in his head. He wasn't sure he'd ever quite thought of it that way, though it certainly made sense.
"Who are you supposed to be? Who is *loved*, little alskling?"
And the look he'd received in return was so honestly puzzled that he'd avoided throwing Alex to the crowds for much longer than he had with any of the others.
The night he couldn't justify waiting any longer, Fox watched the audience eye Alex hungrily, waiting for a misstep. At first, the boy tried making himself very small under their gaze, perhaps fearing his differences were more noticeable in the empty space of the primitive stage.
But then Fox gave the woman he'd slipped the coin to her cue.
"Oh, he's perfectly *lovely*..."
And Alex had looked surprised for only long enough to find where the voice had come from. And then he'd smiled, played ingenue to her admirer for a few moments before turning that need for love on the rest of the crowd. Dangled them on the edge of his pretty knife and flushed when they cried out at it. Alex proved that even the smallest, silliest of tricks and tumbles could become something... more.
After, he had buried his face against Fox's neck and begged forgiveness. The act itself had been innocent, but they both knew the boy had taken more from it than simple applause. It was the same way Fox felt himself after most performances, but Fox hadn't been able to make himself reassure the boy that he'd done well until after he'd slammed himself into Alex and taken him hard.
But it hadn't taken long for Fox to begin painting him.
Tonight Alex bent and twisted under the gaze, nearly shameless in the simple acrobatics, completely so to anyone's gaze but Fox's own. But he could see the thighs were just a little too taut at the prospect of letting himself be loved so anonymously.
And he knew which parts of the smile were painted on.
Alex would be a better performer when he no longer believed in the child's tale of faith and love, but as these thoughts only ever occurred to Fox while he waited to take the stage himself, he didn't do anything about them.
Fox forced himself to stay among the locals for a full hour after his show, smiling by turns wolfishly and with camaraderie. He accepted the bread and cheese one robust farmer's daughter brought for him with a light peck on the cheek that made the girl blush past her hairline.
Inland was always friendlier than the coastal places.
Before Alex, he would spend this time alternately presenting whatever young companion he may have had to the boy's best advantage and hunting eagerly for a new one. Now the search was dull, and mostly reflexive.
These people were basic, and would probably not allow him as much... freedom... as the boy upstairs.
He gathered the last coins and made as much of an exit as he could from the still-packed common room. They were here for two nights; he wanted the crowds to return.
When he got up to their room -- a fine, warm one above the kitchens -- Alex was nude on the bed, fire low in the grate. He was stretching, had probably pulled a muscle from not being fully relaxed while on stage.
"Are you all right?"
He knelt up immediately and smiled. "Yes, Fox, it only hurts a little..."
Of course. He pulled the sturdy wooden chair over until it was directly facing the bed, but several feet away. Alex shifted to come to him, apparently instinctively, but Fox held up a hand. Alex sank back on his heels and eyed him with a mild sort of caution visible even under the innocuously curious surface glance.
"You don't want to touch me tonight, alskling?"
Not when you learn this quickly. I have to have you, just like this, for many more months... "I want to watch you touch yourself, Alex. Tell me what you dream when I'm not touching you."
"I... I don't..."
"Are you ashamed?"
Alex's lashes swept his cheeks, the flush seemed to creep upwards from his navel in the flickering firelight, and Fox barely restrained the urge to just walk over and force the soft mouth over his cock.
"Am I your alskling, Alex?" He wanted to hurt himself for the seeming deception in his own quiet tone, for the sharp anguish in the boy's olive eyes, but a part of him truly did need the terrified reassurance of a young boy. This young boy. There would be a reckoning one day. "There is no shame in pleasing your alskling..."
Alex swallowed. "Wha -- What do you want me to do, Fox?"
"Please yourself. Tell me what you wish I was doing."
One more searching, pleading look and then Alex brought his hand to his lips and licked the palm. Slid it around his cock, which would never disappoint Fox by fully softening. Alex kept his gaze locked on Fox's own, seeming to dare him to break it to look more fully at the motion of hand on cock...
He knew he was imagining things.
"Do you want me to touch you, Alex?"
"Yes, always --"
"My... my chest..."
Alex closed his eyes, and Fox flicked his gaze down to settle on the cock that was darkening quickly, getting ready to leak. Alex's hand was moving faster. "Do you want me to suck them?"
"Yes, alskling --"
"Do you want me to bite them?"
"Please... hard, do it hard..."
Fox hissed in a breath and refocused. Alex was hunched over, one hand stripping his cock ruthlessly, the other toying with his balls in patterns that made Fox's fingers ache in recognition. Alex was moaning a little, but not facing him. Fox didn't have the heart to order Alex to do so.
"Do you want me inside you?"
"Fox, please let me taste you --"
And he was out of the chair and tugging at his pants before he was fully aware of his actions. Alex scooted back on the bed, lay down and let Fox straddle his chest. Fox reached over and tucked the thick bolster under the boy's head, let Alex undo his fly the rest of the way.
Alex took him deep without preamble, seemingly unconcerned by the way Fox's knees tucked up into his armpits and prevented him from getting at his cock. Alex moaned around his length, and Fox began to fuck Alex's mouth, catching the boy's hands when they ran up his thighs and pinning them back to the bed.
He couldn't help but remember the first time Alex had sucked him, watching him force himself to become accustomed to the taste of another man, watching the virgin mouth stretch over his cock...
The way Fox had pushed him off after a brief time solely to see himself connected to Alex by a sticky thread of his semen, and then slid back in and stayed there until the boy had swallowed him whole.
He'd stroked his hair gently, brushed the tear from the corner of Alex's eye with his thumb and told him how beautiful he was.
Fox opened his eyes to the sight of Alex moving easily with his thrusts, eyes closed and cheeks pumping with single-minded lust. So beautiful. When Alex's body moved beneath his in a sea-roll, he knew he'd spoken out loud, and Fox began to thrust harder and faster, pushing down a little too hard on the boy's wrists.
Alex moaned long and low, vibrating against the head of his cock, and Fox came with a grunt, unable to pull out fast enough to avoid choking him with it. When he could control his limbs he pulled back and yanked Alex upright, letting Alex press his face against Fox's throat until he could control his breathing again.
After a while he noticed Alex pressing rhythmically against him and slid his hand down to stroke the still-hard cock.
"Does it hurt, Alex?"
Whimpering moan and then Alex was pushing hard into his fist, against his neck, stupid with need, leaving his relief fully in Fox's hands in helpless trust. Alex fisted the fabric of his shirt and started to beg, a steady chorus of please and beloved and more that made Fox hurt with the gift of it all.
He always wanted more, and he never failed to get it.
"You're perfect, Alex, perfect..."
Alex threw his head back and screamed silently, thickening for a moment in Fox's fist and then shooting.
"I love you, Fox --"
Fox curled up with his companion, holding him close and watching the fire until he slept. He wasn't sure why the words, a simple extension of Alex's 'alskling,' were so surprising.
The next three weeks were spent in vaguely companionable near-silence, from horse, to barn, and back to horse. The rainy season had come earlier this year, and on any given night, the inns were full-up with farmers unable to reach their homes. While the presence of two jongleurs was treasured nearly everywhere Fox had traveled, rooms were rooms.
It was well enough for him. Cara was a fine animal, and, so long as she was near to her owner, gave off a rich, thick smell of contentment that had lulled Fox to sleep on many an occasion.
Alex's reaction to the new arrangements had been nearly comically stoic. He had only just begun to grow accustomed to riding on Cara behind Fox, and still seemed unsure as to whether or not she could be fully trusted. All that would've been fine were it not for the *other* horses.
They raised a raucous noise whenever Alex stepped in from the rain, and had to be quieted by Fox and whatever young stablehand was around. Alex would stand stock still until the whickers and neighs had quieted, and, as soon as Fox reassured him of his basic safety, he would allow himself to be led to that part of the loft just above Cara's quarters, where he would wait.
On those nights, Fox himself would take over the task of currying her, feeding her the little treats he'd charmed from dim, savory kitchens. Quietly teasing the boy above about his basic sea-nature, his alien-ness from all that was good and pure and horse-like. Occasionally, the boy would laugh, but it would be mostly without humor.
Which sometimes made Fox wonder why he picked at the wounds with the focus of a ravenous hummingbird. He shrugged it off and climbed into the loft, placed the lantern carefully away from any of the hay Alex had laid their bed rolls on. Alex was holding himself, turned slightly away from the light and from himself.
"My Alex, surely you know I tease?"
"Was it not one of the things you whisper of to me when I cannot rest? How you'd dreamed my laughter before ever seeing my face?"
"Alskling, I don't like..."
Fox came closer, knelt on the bedroll behind Alex and pulled him close within the nestle of his body. He was not hard yet, but he knew the boy could feel his heat. "What don't you like?"
"They know I'm different, Fox... they all do. On stage, it doesn't matter. I am... I am a... a 'rare thing,' yes?"
"But here... "
"My, alskling, beloved, the horses know you're of the sea and they fear it because they don't understand." Fox pushed his face around a little, nuzzled the baby smooth cheek until he found wetness, then licked it away. "But I taste your salt, I am buffeted by your need... beautiful one, I would not live without the sea."
Alex groaned, twisted within his grasp until he was breathing hard against his mouth. Fox dipped in to kiss, hesitating at the scent of Keeper Tann's honeybread. Alex had been lingering in the kitchen, it appeared. The thought made him smile, and he moved in to complete the kiss.
"Fox, no, please --"
It seemed a little late for skittish virgin, but Fox bit off the irritation. "What is it? What's wrong?"
"Sometimes it hurts, and I..."
Fox wanted to complete the sentence, but found himself unable to do so.
"It hurts and I don't understand. Please, alskling, not here?"
"You fear showing the animals your pleasure?"
"I do not wish to perform when I'm with you... not for animals. Please, can we sleep?"
A part of Fox wanted to pursue it, wanted to take Alex right there, uncurl him from his fear and take him anyway. It was strange to him. Did he not understand they performed with every breath?
A failing for my little one, he thought, and shook his head.
Fox opened his arms, hurting and a little angry by how long it took the boy to crawl to him. By the way he stiffened when he dropped them both to the bedroll summarily. By the flash of apprehension across the boy's eyes just as Fox blew out the lantern.
Fox remained stiff and expectant, and, after far too long, Alex rested his weight on Fox's body and slowly drifted off. Fox did not reach to hold him until after he was sure the boy was sleeping.
He was not sure whether it was small discipline or the petty hatred of any troubadour for the passage of time.
The next day they breakfasted in the commons with a number of rough, irritable looking men and women. The rains had proven too much for the rotting boards of the chicken coop and the foxes had feasted. Damp, bloody feathers were strewn over the yard. There were no eggs this morning, and no one wanted the pummeled carcass of the one fox that had been caught.
And the floods were coming.
Fox looked around, caught the eye of a bored serving matron somewhere between fourteen and wed. The floods would, undoubtedly, wreak havoc on the coming crops. In six months, her cheeks would be gaunt, her bones fragile. She would begin losing those small, even teeth.
He chanced a look at Alex, who gave every appearance of being lost in his lightly sweetened cereal. He had yet to lose his fascination with all things Not Fish, it seemed. Fox felt a wave of affection and nearly reached out to stroke his pale face. Alex caught the movement and looked up expectantly, wide-eyed. His lips twitched on the edge of a smile and Fox grinned himself in encouragement.
And then the matron brushed past Alex, sweeping his face with her skirts. Alex turned into it, and a cheekbone normally buffered by the softness of youth stood out in stark relief to the grey morning.
"We're leaving. Finish your breakfast and see to the horses."
"All... all right, Fox. Is there....?"
"Alex... just go."
The younger man nodded at him, took three quick spoonfuls of his porridge and disappeared.
Fox gathered his belongings not already sent with Alex and settled the bill, barely restraining himself from leaving even Cara behind and bolting for high grounds, warmer lands...
He would not leave Alex here, though.
Fox was forced to admit he had chosen badly. While the word from Helsinki, the west, was of clear skies and a mild spring, the rains seemed to be chasing them southeast. With the rains came hard times for traveling performers, as people lost the leisure to even try to forget their troubles for a time.
Finland would have been a good place for them.
He consoled himself with the thought that you couldn't really trust weather reports over long distances, and tried to imagine the roads and bridges to their west covered in feet of impassable snow.
It eased the constant traveling, as did the boy at his back who never complained. It pained *Fox* to think about the smooth, lovely skin of Alex's backside growing desensitized, though. As if on cue, Alex squeezed him a little, shifted closer on the overlarge saddle.
No real messages of arousal -- at least none abnormal for a boy his age -- just the transmission of an affection that had to be nearly unconscious at this point. Fox let his focus drift a little from the road and their surroundings to concentrate for a moment on the feel of a warm cheek pressed against his back, of fingers knotted at his waist.
Alex was... easy. Easy to take, easy to keep. A pet who never shed or made noise, a constant source of validation. If Fox said they had to keep moving, then they damned well had to keep moving. If Fox said there would be no meat, well, he'd done without for years before this.
It was almost too much, and there had been more than one occasion Fox had left an unnecessary bruise. He knew it was wrong, at least for this, knew there was no possible justification for trying to make Alex's outside show the imperfections that apparently didn't exist on the inside, but...
But there were times when Fox wanted a more equal partner, someone who had to have his own horse not just because he was too big for any other arrangement, but because they would fight to the point of awkward silence and prickly flesh.
He had money in Bonn (more scattered throughout Europe, but as familiar as he was with the North, he had never trusted its peoples *quite* enough to travel there with more than just enough), and there he would get Alex his own horse. Perhaps a black one, though it went against his grain to have something that flashy in his life. A roan would do.
Perhaps he would keep Alex long enough to justify getting him a black when he'd reached his full height and strength.
He entertained himself briefly with a fuzzed-at-the-edges image of Alex as highwayman, or reasonable facsimile thereof. Perhaps there would come a day when he'd catch up with his old troupe again, and stay just long enough to get the boy situated.
Fox squeezed his eyes shut at the conflicting rush of thought, trying hard not to remember how little distance they had traveled. He trusted Cara to move them safely, and tried not to feel her growing weariness between his thighs. He tried not to be angry at the darkening sky, and the ache in his bones.
They would reach Halmstad -- a small coastal town that would nonetheless probably stun Alex to still more silence -- in no more than three or four more days, and then they would all find some measure of rest on whatever ship they caught to Randers or Copenhagen or wherever.
He decided it would be more productive to start thinking of ways to entertain the sailors that would be as painless as possible for the both of them.
After a time, Alex squeezed him again, and Fox realized with some irritation that he had tensed again.
"... and so young Marcus wandered deep into the woods, careless of the paths his mother had laid out for him, slow to gather the herbs in the plush temptation of earth and dappled sunlight..."
Fox had the sailors' full attention. Given the exoticism of woodlands and hints of sensuality, the result was always the same. There were times when he had to force himself to continue to think about his words, so natural were they on his tongue.
He'd been doing this more than long enough to know that a simple distraction -- *any* simple distraction -- could jar him out of the story's rhythm. A lost place was a lost audience.
There would come a time, perhaps in some well-appointed salon of a wealthy merchant, that Alex would play the part of Marcus, or Peter, or Bjorn, or whoever, but he didn't trust the boy to be far enough away from his fisherman's roots not to lose all of his new finesse on the shift and roll of the deck.
He had spent more time laughing with the sailors and sharing his experiences than performing for them, and that was... dangerous.
A connection with the crowd meant they would be more than just the sum total of their reactions when Alex took the stage. It was important to never take them fully into your soul, lest you forget how to crawl into theirs.
"... screech of an owl that woke him, finally. The moon was high and full, but the canopy of trees was thick. Marcus could not see more than a few feet ahead of him, and was quickly lost among the strange night sounds of small animals and summer insects..."
Fox hunched himself slightly, and widened his eyes. Not too much, the storyteller should never *be* Marcus, but just enough to spark something in the crowd's imagination. A recognition of fear, and, if he was very skillful indeed, of that bright, brittle remorse of youth. He would try it again when Marcus was well and truly lost.
For now, he shifted a little closer to the lanterns bolted in front of him, trying to take advantage of the shadows as he described...
"... the roots seemed to leap out at him, tripping him down to the ground, suddenly cold and damp beneath his scratched cheeks. His trousers had ripped at the knee at one point, and when a spider crept on too many feet across his hand, Marcus wanted nothing more than to be scolded by his mother for his carelessness.
"He could almost *see* the warm, orange light of the hearth, smell the bread that would undoubtedly be baking..."
Fox had never been able to resist the urge to run his eyes over the crowd at this point. With sailors, you could almost always catch a few of them drifting away at the thought of a Home that had reached near mythical status in their years on the sea.
There was one, near the back. A surprisingly young one... perhaps there had been a girl. He would embroider that story for the next set of farmers, perhaps. The rest were leaning forward, eyes bright and eager at the thought of that rapidly damaging young boy...
"... harder and harder to see. Marcus was in one of the deepest, oldest parts of the woods now, but the only thing he knew was that the trees here were so close together that they had begun choking each other off. He looked down to see roots wound together in tortured snarls. He looked up and noticed how few leaves were left.
"The trees were dying here, and Marcus had no idea how to get home..."
It was time, and Fox called up the image he'd been saving. Alex, at the moment he realized Fox was gone. Forever. Wondering what he would do... wondering what he'd *done*. He felt himself harden at the double-blade and used that, too. The gleam would distance himself from Marcus, and encourage the audience to pay ever more attention.
A few gasps scattered here and there... There would be tips for this, above and beyond the free passage. No one would try to make Alex more of a mascot than he already was for at least a few days.
Fox swallowed his satisfaction with a small, inward grin. Chanced melodrama cockily with a smoothly upraised hand -- a hint of entreaty. None of the eyes he could see followed the movement. It would register too subtly. He had them.
He *had* them.
"... to weep, shameless in his fear. The tears dried on his cheeks in the cold wind, chilling him even more. Marcus wrapped his arms around himself and fell to his knees...
"And kept falling.
"The wind flapped in his filthy clothes as he fell, faster and faster --" Fox picked up speed, jumped a few precious, shocking inches closer to the crowd. "He could see worms wriggle at the edges of the tunnel of earth, and occasionally fall. He could not see his way below and only hoped that when he landed...
"He hoped that it would go quickly."
He grinned coldly at the men before him and slipped back into shadow. He paused until he could almost -- *almost* -- feel the questions begin.
"Marcus hit the water with a jarring splash, loud enough in the darkness to make him wonder if the world was splitting in two, but the thought was brief. The strangely warm water covered his head, and he surrendered to the pull of unconsciousness, of sweet rest."
An uncomfortable shiver from the trollish man in the right front corner -- no one feared drowning like a sailor.
"He never felt the soft, strong hands that pulled him to shore."
Now, *now* he could breathe a little. The rest of the tale was nothing new. A princess, a monster, a gory battle to a happy ending... all the same. The only difference was that this time it all took place in the World Beneath the Waves.
Something for them to dream about.
Fox stole a flask from the first mate and took a long pull. The whiskey was of a surprisingly good quality. The night would be easy.
In the four days that followed, Fox became far more aware of the bosun than he'd wished. The man had a face that appeared to be carved from some common stone, he was less skinned than hided, and, though there was no glint of gold or silver at his ear, Fox could see the old, crude scar of a former pirate.
They were the same height, but Skinner was heavier. He was clearly the ship's disciplinarian, from the broad, impossibly masculine feet he kept bare on the rough wooden boards of the deck to the jaw set, seemingly permanently, on stern.
He was the sort of man Fox, in his younger days, had gladly surrendered himself to. Rough, solid men that left him with the blessedly inescapable taste of the real on the roof of his mouth. Tethered him to the world, if only with sweat, semen, and occasionally blood.
But this one spoke in more than monosyllables, and he spoke with the same cadences of the men of Alex's village. Apparently, he hailed from just a few miles north of grey Kungalv, and had worked his own village's fishing boats when he'd been young.
Alex had babbled all this to him after the performances, glowing with it, happy to have found someone from his home. Fox struggled with himself, and had managed to bite back the forcible reminders of just what that home had been like for him.
But then he'd watched the two of them interact... Afternoon on the deck, the breeze biting but the sun heavy and hot. Skinner was standing, cross-armed and looming, over a man scrubbing at the deck on his hands and knees. Alex was beside him, fully focused on the older man in that way only he could make seem natural.
He was smiling, gesturing animatedly with his hands, speaking quickly and casually in the patois of his home of favored dishes and the endless fish stories. Skinner spoke in a low, quiet rumble, barely moving out of his business pose. The lack of fascination was both relaxing and maddening, and Fox had been left with a vague feeling of indulgence.
When Alex had come to him with the 'new' verses to an old chanty, Fox had reached out and cupped his cheek. Promised they would find a way to work it into a show. When Alex had asked,
Fox nodded, and said someday.
The next day, however, the wind had shifted during his short matinee of jokes and tricks. It threw his own patter back against his face, and brought him the sound of deep, easy laughter. And while it was pleasant to see others fall to his Alex's charms....
Fox had changed the tenor of his performance drastically, going back to his original plan of leaving the off-shift crowd vaguely disturbed by his presence. He told the tale of the Magician's Glass, and wished for one of his own.
He, after all, knew precisely how to avoid being pulled in at the end.
Later, he brought Alex off with his hand while leaving two distinct marks on either side of his throat. He hadn't trusted himself for more than that. Not with the soft cries of yes and please.... They were too sharp, somehow.
The following afternoon he gave entirely to Alex for his clown routine, but he hadn't painted him. He gave the sailors his Alex unpainted and marked, and watched Skinner watching him. Watched him swallow as Alex turned his back to the crowd, bent and looked through his own legs with the exaggerated expression of surprised foolishness.
Fox often thought Alex was physically incapable of moving without calling attention to his complex beauty, the not-entirely-human cast of the bones beneath the soft skin, the bright beam of his smile.... certainly physical comedy demanded the stretch and flex of young muscle to be on display for all.
Skinner wasn't the only one who watched him more closely than the simple act demanded, but Skinner was the one who offered him wine afterwards. Alex pulled back, looked to Fox. It was hard, but he nodded as easily as he could, and smiled. Skinner sent him a long, measuring glance then, and Fox raised an eyebrow.
And then he turned away, and started the sailors singing. Only when he was positive Skinner and Alex had reached the older man's quarters did he move, carefully and casually, to follow.
The corridors were nearly black after the sun above, but Fox had traced this route before. It was simple practicality to know the ship that was your home for several weeks, after all. It was hot, and smelled vaguely of too many men. The holds would probably be near fetid, but this was merely... close.
And silent. There was something to be said for a beautiful day. The impression of voices came before the voices themselves, a settling in his bones that made him want to look around for the *rest* of the audience. He settled for moving forward.
"... can't, my alskling --"
"Your alskling? No beautiful Alex, he doesn't love you."
"How can you say that?"
Muffled sound, perhaps Skinner moving closer, grabbing him. "To him, you are only a child... yes, Alex, it's true, I know, I know --"
"Please don't --"
"Does he know your songs? Have you told him about the stars over the beach at night?"
"My Fox... my Fox doesn't care about such things, he has more important... I cannot waste his time --"
"Oh, Alex... Alex, Alex if he truly loved you, nothing you did would waste his time."
"Please don't say these things!"
"I'm so sorry, beautiful one, I can't bear for you not to understand this. I don't want you to be hurt when Fox... I don't want you to be hurt."
"He would not hurt me!"
"He sent you here, Alex. He knew what I wanted... what I could take."
Fox winced, reached for the door. Or thought he did, but his arms did not obey him.
And then there was a long silence, and Fox broke the paralysis to walk back to his own quarters, as silently as he could. As he passed the open ladder, a spotlight of sunshine caught on a drop of blood falling from one clenched fist, but Fox paid it no mind.
When Alex returned, it was full dark.
He was freshly scrubbed, and Fox doubted Skinner had left many obvious marks. It was always easier to control yourself the first time, after all.
His mouth was dark, kiss-swollen, though. Fox decided the last feeble protests had been stilled with the firm, brutal mouth.
Alex moved a little closer to where Fox sat on the small, bolted chair at the small, bolted desk. There was no stiffness in the lean limbs beneath the hesitation.
Perhaps not brutal, then. Simply implacable until his own need had wakened Alex's.
Alex's voice cracked low on his name, the timing for the inevitability too perfect for reality, but it *was* real. He looked up, met frightened eyes fully for the first time.
Frightened. Not hesitant, not apprehensive, not confused. Frightened. Of what he'd do.
Fox stood and walked over to Alex, stroked his face. There were tears threatening, perhaps *because* of his gentle touch. Fox wrapped his arms around the boy and tugged him close. Alex stiffened before ramming himself against Fox, burying his face as low on his chest as he could manage without twisting his spine out of true.
He stroked Alex's back, made hushing sounds despite the boy's silence.
After a while, Alex loosened in his arms and they just breathed together until Fox began to pull away. Alex gripped his shirt and held on for a long moment. Looked up, and there were so many questions there that Fox wanted to *beg*. Yes, do it, *ask*...
"Did you... he said..."
"What did he say, Alex?"
A pause while Alex seemed to try to force himself behind Fox's eyes, searching and searching.
"Am I... am I only a child, Fox?"
Yes, please, always. Not anymore. My fault... "You could never be *only* anything, Alex."
Alex recoiled, dropped the fabric in his hands and stepped away. He looked stricken. The reaction was no shock -- he had never been precisely *stupid*.
"If I am a child, I am not... I am not your --"
"You are mine, Alex. You are always mine."
"That's not --"
Fox pushed into his space again. "Enough? What would you prefer, Alex?"
Alex shook his head, opened and closed his mouth several times before visibly pulling himself in. Pulling himself away. Fox swallowed the hurt, the irrational rage, everything he could. And waited.
Alex pushed his chin up. "I love you."
But you will not let me hurt you anymore? Oh, Alex... Fox shook it off internally and nodded. Held out his hand.
Alex did not take it.
"I... I need to walk, Fox."
A flare of something, magnesium blinding and fast, and Fox trembled on the edge of something. It died quickly, though. He closed his fingers and lowered his hand to his side. Nodded again.
Alex's face seemed to ripple for a moment, but then he turned for the exit. He paused at the door, though, and Fox walked up behind him.
Placed his lips against Alex's nape and let them linger there until the boy shivered.
"What do you *want* from me?"
He kissed his way up to Alex's ear. "I want you."
"But Fox... who do you want me to be? Who is loved, alskling?"
His voice was as gentle, as loving as ever, but Fox still froze. Slowly broke the contact between mouth and skin.
"I don't know. I... " Mine... you have to...
Alex turned, leaned back against the door. He studied Fox for a long moment, seemed to be searching for a response. Fox couldn't find one.
In the end, all he did was lean forward and tilt his head up for a kiss Fox could not help but give.